Ties between Islamabad and Washington are unravelling over security concerns and policies in Afghanistan. Rahimullah Yusufzai assesses a tense situation
It is unusual for Pakistan to respond so forcefully to the United States of America, not only denying accusations against it but also insisting that its policy is justifiable and will be pursued. Yet this is what is happening right now and it is pushing the two long-term allies on to a collision course.
The bone of contention is Afghanistan, with Pakistan and the US having contradictory ideas about why the country is still riven by conflict and how to bring the long war to a peaceful end. Despite heavy odds against it, President Donald Trump believes that a military solution is possible, in which the Afghan Taliban is defeated or considerably weakened. Pakistan disagrees and wants to focus on exploring a political settlement through peace talks with the Taliban.
Although the ice was broken recently when Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi met US Vice President Mike Pence on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York and the two sides decided to remain engaged, the relationship continues to be tested. The goals set by President Trump in his much-awaited August 21 policy speech on Afghanistan and South Asia have not changed and, tasked with meeting these ambitious goals, Pakistan is reluctant to do so. It is also refusing to accept the US narrative that Islamabad provides safe havens for terrorists who attack Nato and Afghan forces in Afghanistan, and is furious that Trump made no mention of Pakistan’s counter-argument that Afghanistan-based Pakistani Taliban and Baloch militants backed by Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies were attacking and destabilising Pakistan.
Trump’s public criticism of Pakistan was unprecedented, as was Islamabad’s reaction. Following a meeting of the high-powered National Security Council, in which both the civilian and military high command are represented, Pakistan dismissed the assertion that it harbours terrorists as a ‘false narrative’, reiterating its resolve not to allow terrorists to use Pakistani territory to launch attacks against any other country.
Pakistan officials had earlier made offers to the US to identify the safe havens for the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network which they believe exist in Pakistan so that these could be jointly inspected, verified and dismantled. Pakistan accepted a similar proposal made by a visiting delegation of US Senators led by John McCain, on condition that Afghanistan agreed to allow inspection of places in its three eastern provinces which Pakistan suspects are hideouts for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its allied groups such as Jamaatul Ahrar and Lashkar-i-Islam. Though Afghanistan agreed to joint inspection visits on both sides of the Durand Line border, the proposal has not yet materialised and is unlikely to be pursued, given the poor state of Afghan-Pakistan relations.
There is, however, one common objective: tackling Islamic State, or Daesh as it is commonly known. A recent trilateral defence meeting in Kabul that brought together military officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US agreed to cooperate to eliminate IS, which has captured territory in eastern and northern Afghanistan and is posing threats to regional states. If the three countries can coordinate their separate campaigns against IS and also collaborate with Iran, China, Russia and Central Asian states that are all concerned about the presence of Daesh in their neigbourhoods, it could lead to further joint efforts to defeat terrorism.
In his speech, Trump conveyed different messages to Afghanistan, which was told to reform the government as it would no longer get a blank cheque in future, and India, which was asked to spend some of its money on development work in the war-torn country. However, the starkest message was for Pakistan. It could be compared to the one delivered by President George W Bush after the 9/11 attacks, when he told Pakistan to decide whether it was with or against the US. In response, Pakistan immediately declared that it was with the US and began taking steps to facilitate the US invasion of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and the destruction of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. Trump, in his own aggressive style, warned Pakistan that it has much to gain by taking action against the terrorists and a lot to lose by harbouring them. While military ruler General Pervez Musharraf succumbed to the pressure exerted by the Bush administration and changed Pakistan’s pro-Taliban policy to anti-Taliban, the present government in Islamabad is in no mood to take dictation from Trump – for the time being, at least.
Instead, Pakistan has been finding fault with Trump’s revised Afghan policy by declaring that India has no political or military role in Afghanistan as they are not neighbours. Prime Minister Abbasi said it was up to New Delhi and Kabul to decide on India’s position in the development of the war-ravaged country, but assigning it a bigger role there was not acceptable to Islamabad.
Pakistan has also been arguing that no external blueprint can bring peace and stability to Afghanistan; the solution lies within, through dialogue between the government and the Taliban. Islamabad categorically refused to take action against Afghan Taliban or Haqqani network leaders, arguing that it would bring the Afghan conflict to Pakistan and destabilise the country. Rather, Pakistan has maintained that all leaders of the Afghan Taliban, or its Haqqani network faction, have shifted to Afghanistan or other countries. Another Pakistani argument is that the Afghan Taliban (even according to US military authorities) control or contest about 40 per cent of Afghan territory and so could easily stay there instead of seeking sanctuary in Pakistan.
However, the fact remains that some Afghan Taliban leaders continue to reside in Pakistan and others keep moving across the porous, 2,500-km long Durand Line. It is true that a number of Afghan Taliban members have gone to Afghanistan or found refuge in Qatar, Iran and the UAE, but their presence in Pakistan has not ended entirely. Pakistan’s influence on the Taliban has also been reduced and the latter are still refusing to enter into peace talks with the Afghan government. The huge distrust between Islamabad and Kabul and the latter’s closeness to New Delhi are also hurdles in starting a workable peace process.
It appears that Trump has plans to pressurise Islamabad into accepting US demands. Eventually, the US could remove Pakistan’s status as a non-Nato ally, thus denying it certain privileges, and could curtail and even halt economic and military assistance to Pakistan. The increasingly hostile US Congress has already taken certain steps towards this end, particularly by stopping the payment of money Washington owed to Islamabad under the Coalition Support Fund and reducing payments to Pakistan as punishment for keeping suspected CIA agent Dr Shakil Afridi in custody. There has also been talk of imposing economic sanctions and penalising certain Pakistani military and intelligence officials for maintaining contacts with militant and terrorist groups.
Pakistan has received about $22 billion from the US since 2001, following America’s invasion of Afghanistan; but it claims to have suffered losses of $120 billion during this period due to its partnership with America in the war against terrorism. Added to this are the losses Pakistan has sustained from the influx of drugs and arms into the country, and from the political, social and economic fallout of the Afghanistan conflict, including hosting Afghan refugees for an extended period.
Trump’s assertion about the need to ensure that nuclear weapons don’t fall into the hands of terrorists was also aimed at Pakistan. It was an attempt to portray Pakistan as an insecure state, incapable of protecting its nuclear assets.
For years, Pakistan and the US were partners in anti-USSR and anti-communism military pacts, and allies in the Afghan jihad against Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan. But the relationship has grown antagonistic with the US’s closer moves towards India in recent years and Pakistan’s efforts to build a new alliance with old friend China and new-found acquaintance Russia. The relationship is unlikely to return to its former warmth, though a total break would not serve the interests of either.